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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

Ugandan Student Accepted to Harvard, with Help from Kasiisi Project

By D. SIMONE KOVACS, Crimson Staff Writer

With the morning cold biting his feet, Akandwanaho trekked more than seven miles each day to his primary school in Uganda. Other days, he fought bouts of malaria to show up to class.

Akandwanaho, who does not have a last name and is known to friends and mentors by the Western name “Dominic,” is the son of illiterate farmers. He believed that his life would closely resemble his parents’. But now, he has the chance to matriculate at Harvard next fall as a member of the class of 2016.

“When I was young, I dreamt of an education,” Dominic writes in an email.

In 2006, he was offered a chance to fulfill those dreams. After excelling in his primary school examinations, Dominic was named a Kasiisi scholar by the eponymous Kasiisi Project, founded by Currier House Co-Master Elizabeth A. Ross.

Ross began traveling to Uganda in 1987 with her husband, fellow Currier House Master Richard W. Wrangham, who studies chimpanzees in the Kibale National Park. A friend who worked at a local school introduced Ross to the serious problems facing the education system.

Since 1997, Ross has worked to provide education and conservation information to community members in the Kibale National Park area of Uganda.

When the government introduced free, universal primary education for every student in 1997, it also stretched the resources of existing schools, Ross said.

“That meant that the number of kids in schools ballooned overnight, but there were no extra resources.” Ross said that she identified a need for a program that worked with schools to improve the quality of care and education the students in the Kibale Park area.

“We started in one school that was pretty much condemned, the buildings were very derelict,” she says. “We came back [to the United States] and people got interested, and it grew from there.”

BUILDING A FOUNDATION

When Ross started the non-profit Kasiisi Project, she noticed that many Kibale schools were in disrepair and lacked basic infrastructure.

“There were no floors, there was no furniture, and whenever it rained, the wind, it just washed through,” said Ross. “If we can make the schools better, then we will give the kids an opportunity that doesn’t require going into the forest and poaching and cutting down trees.”

The Kasiisi Project built classrooms and latrines for the girls, Ross said, and began distributing sanitary napkins to female students who would otherwise miss school without them.

In 2006, the Kasiisi project began to provide porridge lunches to every student in the Kasiisi and Kanyawara schools.

“They’ve made huge improvements in the schools,” says Brennan A. Vail ’12, who conducted thesis research on child nutrition and energy in Uganda with the Kasiisi Project schools. “At the schools that don’t have the porridge, 20 percent of kids aren’t eating anything for lunch. At the schools that do, only 2 percent of the kids aren’t eating anything for lunch,” Vail added.

According to Ross, the porridge is essential to creating an effective learning environment and improving academic performance.

In 2007, the Project added a literacy initiative by opening lending libraries in their primary schools.

“You can tell a difference in between the kids who have been reading and have had access to these libraries,” said Michelle A. Sirois ’12.

Sirois worked with the literacy initiative in Uganda, where she helped students write down, translate, and construct books out of Ugandan stories they heard from their parents.

Equally important to Ross’s mission in the Kasiisi Project is the conservation of the Kibale National Park, which is home to many endangered species of monkeys, chimpanzees, and elephants. A rising local population and increased demand for resources has contributed to increased deforestation and hunting in the Park.

The Kasiisi Project works to educate students in waste and water management and sustainable living in order to help local families survive while keeping the forest alive. “The major threat to the forest is the people that live around it,” she said.

HEALTHY FUTURES

Although many Kasiisi Project programs are aimed at children who will remain in the Kibali Park area and grow up to be farmers, the Project also operates a scholarship program for exceptional rural students who would otherwise be unable to attain a good secondary school education, according to Ross.

Everyone who has gone through the scholar program was able to find a job, Ross said.

“It can be hard for them to get above and beyond if they have goals that are big dreams because you don’t make a lot of money in subsistence farming and education is expensive,” says Abigail F. Schoenberg ’12, who worked with the Kasiisi Project to create a ninety-second educational video for the students to promote hand-washing and health.

“The scholarship program has a huge impact. It really gives them a future that would be really difficult for them to get otherwise,” she added.

It was through this scholarship program that Dominic was able to enroll in a private boarding school. And for Dominic, that matriculation meant he no longer had to walk seven miles in the cold to get an education.

“It also provided us with mosquito nets, meaning that I no longer suffer from malaria due to mosquito bites,” he writes. “I have never suffered from Malaria since then.”

Dominic is the first scholar from the program to be accepted into an American university. When at Harvard, Dominic, who is interested in biological and medical research, plans to study neurobiology. He wants to use his education to contribute to scientific advancement in Uganda. Aside from his hard work, Dominic attributes much of his success to the Kasiisi project.

“If I had not become a Kasiisi Scholar, I would have probably dropped out of school in my early secondary school education,” he wrote. “Where I am going right now, Harvard, is due to the Kasiisi Project.”

—Staff writer D. Simone Kovacs can be reached at dkovacs@college.harvard.edu.

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